There’s Power in Photography: The Undying Resilience of Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival

Interview with Shahidul Alam by Daniel Boetker-Smith
Photojournalist and activist Shahidul Alam speaks out about the effects of his detainment on Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival, and how the event still plans to persevere for years to come.
SHAHIDUL ALAM Photo: Tom Hatlestad
The year 2018 is one that Shahidul Alam, and the wider international photographic community, will not forget so easily. In August last year, just hours after an interview on Al Jazeera where he openly criticized the Bangladesh government’s violent response to student protests, Alam was forcibly taken from his home by the Dhaka Metropolitan Police and arrested.
While remanded, Alam was interrogated and beaten. Following a significant outpouring of support and pressure from Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and other Bangladeshi and international organizations and notable figures, Alam was released after spending 107 days in prison.
As a widely respected activist, photojournalist and academic, Alam is most prominently known as founder of the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and the biannual Chobi Mela Photography Festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which returns on February 28th of this year for its tenth edition.

In one of his first major interviews since the events of late last year, Alam talks to Daniel Boetker-Smith about the upcoming festival, the political power of photography, and the state of the medium in Bangladesh, South Asia and beyond.


Tunisia, from the series “Exodus from Libya”. Bangladeshi migrant labourers who have fled the unrest in Libya walking along a road from the border post at Ras Ajdir towards a refugee camp set up by UNHCR near the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia. Tens of thousands of people have fled the unrest in Libya, which started on 17 February 2011 as a popular uprising against the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. © Chris de Bode

DBS: Given recent events that we have all followed closely, how has planning for this Festival been different to previous years?

SA: The last few months have meant that this year’s festival is coming back to its roots. Chobi Mela began as a very small event, and over the past 20 years it grew significantly in stature. But this year, we are activating a diverse range of less formal exhibition venues around Dhaka. This shift is one of necessity, because Chobi Mela is not an organization that everyone in Bangladesh wants to work with at the moment—we are seen as dangerous. A lot of previous supporters and sponsors of the festival are businesses in Dhaka, and right now they are being tested. They know that their decisions are being monitored and that there is high level of government surveillance surrounding the event. Because of this, we have had to be more inventive, finding new ways to show work, utilizing different types of exhibition and event spaces for photographers and audiences. Some public venues and government-owned buildings are no longer available to us, and we are choosing to see this as an opportunity to move away from the traditional ‘white cube’ mode of presentation, to a much more raw and community-oriented festival. Continue reading “There’s Power in Photography: The Undying Resilience of Dhaka’s Chobi Mela Festival”

Shahidul Alam: Caught in the Crossfire of Bangladesh’s Fledgling Democracy

DHAKA, BANGLADESH, 10/16/2018 © SK HASAN ALI / SHUTTERSTOCK

By Rachel Spence in Fair Observer •   OCTOBER 24, 2018

How do you persuade a government to release a prisoner, however wrongfully incarcerated, if it doesn’t want to cooperate?

Thousands of signatures, tweets, Instagram and Facebook posts. Dozens of articles. Then there are the rallies: from Kathmandu to New York, from Rome to New Delhi, London to Mumbai. Week by week, hundreds of people are gathering in public spaces to protest against the incarceration in Dhaka, Bangladesh, of photographer, journalist, teacher and activist Shahidul Alam.

Among the most headline-grabbing initiatives is Wasfia Nazreen’s sky-high stunt. The mountaineer and social activist — the first Bangladeshi to climb the Seven Summits — flew over Manhattan in an airplane trailing a banner that read “Free Shahidul Alam. Free our teachers.” Another high-profile intervention was made by artist Tania Bruguera, who was herself locked up in her native Cuba after she offended the state censors, and recently devoted her Tate Modern exhibition in London to a display of Alam’s photographs. “What keeps you going when you’re in prison,” Bruguera told me, “are your principles. And the support of others around you.” Continue reading “Shahidul Alam: Caught in the Crossfire of Bangladesh’s Fledgling Democracy”

Chobi Mela beckons

 

This is the moment that art lovers have been waiting for. The most prestigious photography festival in Asia, Chobi Mela is about to begin. An exciting mix of exhibitions, workshops, artist talks and discussions involving participants from all the continents awaits you.

Given recent events, the staging of Chobi Mela itself was an act of defiance. The limitations forced us to be more creative, and in many ways, this edition promises to be the most exciting ever. You’ll regret missing it.

Whether you are an active supporter or just a casual visitor, this is the time when it all comes together. Welcome to all of you who have traveled across the globe to be here. Welcome too, to those who call Dhaka your home.

Key information about the events follow. As in all major festivals, there are last minute changes. Flights are missed, visas fail to come through, people get sick. So please look up the website for the latest updates at  http://www.chobimela.org/schedule/

Make friends, see great art, soak in Bangladesh, but above all, enjoy yourselves.

Shahidul Alam
Festival Director

Copyright © 2019, Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography, All rights reserved.

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THE PLACE OF SHAHIDUL ALAM

First published in PIX

by Rahaab Allana

From A Struggle for Democracy, 1987–1990

No heaven, no hell, no everafter, do I care for when I’m gone
Peace here I seek, in this sand and soil, this place where I was born
As oceans deep, as deserts wide, as forests and fences loom
As children die, as lovers sigh, no cross, no epitaph, no tomb…

Place by Shahidul Alam, 2017* Continue reading “THE PLACE OF SHAHIDUL ALAM”

Lucie Awards Honoree Shahidul Alam for Humanitarian Award

Tribute video for 2018 Lucie Awards Honoree Shahidul Alam for the Humanitarian Award.

Presented at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Sunday October 28th 2018. Presented and Received by Gayatri Spivak.

2018 Lucie Awards Honoree: Shahidul Alam, Humanitarian Award from Lucie Foundation on Vimeo.

The Free Shahidul Campaign

I am unable to individually thank all the people who stood by me in those dark days, but I hope you will accept the heartfelt appreciation by me and the many others  who were at the forefront of the fight to get me released. The case still stands and I face a potential maximum sentence of fourteen years. So the fight to drop the case must continue.

438 Indian eminent personalities demand Shahidul’s release

Continue reading “The Free Shahidul Campaign”

Desperation

The selfie sessions have now become a part of my life. Ever since coming out of Keraniganj, and possibly more, after becoming Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, I’m stopped in the streets, in shopping malls, bookstores, roadside cafes, at restaurants and weddings. The most recent spree was at the National Press Club on the 11th, where there was a public hearing of parliamentary candidates who were victims of election fraud. I have no idea who this guy is, but Blitz has again come up with a howler.

Posting on Blitz of selfie taken on 11th January 2018 by unknown person when I was at National Press Club on the 11th, January 2019, where there was a public hearing of parliamentary candidates who were victims of election fraud

They’re getting somewhat desperate in their smear campaign. Not having been able to come up with anything vaguely credible, they are now getting quite ridiculous. First I was a Mossad Agent. Then ISI. Then they tried the Hizbut Tahrir poster. Now I’m a Jamaati! I’d better be careful. I’ve been photographed with the President, and several cabinet ministers. They’ll accuse me of being an Awami Leaguer next. Now that would ruin anybody’s reputation!

 

‘The Shahidul Alam I Know Is Gentle’

Urvashi Butalia writes about the times she met and worked with the Bangladeshi photojournalist, who was granted bail by the High Court in Dhaka after 102 days of detention.

I cannot now remember when I first met Shahidul Alam, but I think it was some twenty or more years ago when both of us served on the board of an organisation called Panos South Asia. My first impression of him was of a somewhat large, bearded man who spoke with an accent I could not place. It did not take long – perhaps a few hours – for this to change and for the warm, affectionate and caring human being to emerge.

Poppy McPherson

@poppymcp

Iconic shot of Bangladeshi photojournalist and rights activist Shahidul Alam, shared by the campaign. He finally got bail today after more than 100 days in prison, accused of spreading propaganda. He was arrested after posting on Facebook about protests in Dhaka.

To me, Shahidul came across that time as the best kind of nationalist. He loved – he still does – his country Bangladesh. His stint abroad – I never actually knew where he has studied or spent any time – had actually left this feeling much stronger in him. He told all of us about Drik, the photo agency that showcased photographers from the global South and that fiercely protected their rights and their work, refusing to accept that simply because they belonged to the South, their value was any the less. Drik charged for their photos as did international agencies, and why not, was Shahidul’s question. Continue reading “‘The Shahidul Alam I Know Is Gentle’”

Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise

Dearest Arundhati,

It was a letter I read and reread long before it appeared before my eyes. It was through layers of metal bars that I strained to listen to Rahnuma’s words. At over 130 decibels, the noise made by us screaming prisoners, straining to hear and be heard, was akin to a crowded stadium or a fire siren. As she repeated her words over and over again, I faintly heard, Arundhati. Letter. It was just over a hundred days that I had been incarcerated. A hundred days since I’d slept on my own bed, fed my fish, cycled down the streets of Dhaka. A hundred days since I’d pressed my shutter as I searched for that elusive light.

Arundhati Roy with Maati Ke Laal in her flat in Delhi. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Those words, screamed out but barely heard was the nourishment I needed. Did you write it by hand? What was the paper like? In this digital age, you probably used a keyboard. What font had you used? What point size? And the words. Words that you so gracefully string together. I relished the imagined words. Your words. I missed words as I missed my bed, my fish and Rahnuma’s touch. When they asked me what I needed in jail, books were on top of my list. The first lot of books came in. Mujib’s prison diaries, Schendel’s History of Bangladesh, and the book you’d given me when we last met, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I’d been meaning to read it ever since we said goodbye in Delhi, but our lives had been taken over by the immediacy of our struggles. Now I had the time. Continue reading “Reply to Arundhati: Yes, We Will Rise”

Crossing the Threshold

The Drik Calendar 2019

We were behind schedule. Every August, I find myself writing the introduction to the Drik calendar. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a practice of featuring Chobi Mela on odd years and finding a topic of common interest on even ones. With my arrest on 5th August-for reporting on ongoing events-the equation changed. Drik, Pathshala, family and friends had all run ragged trying to arrange my release. The calendar was simply not a priority.
Cover of Drik calendar 2019 featuring work by Pathshala alumni

As things settled, we decided we would continue doing the things we did. That would become part of our resistance. However, the Bangladeshi Jail Code has restrictions on what a prisoner can send out. In my case, it meant a complete firewall.

Resourceful as ever, Rahnuma and Saydia, managed to get a short list of suggested photographs through to me, and I was able to do an edit. Abir Abdullah and Tanzim Wahab were to co-write the introduction. But we had underestimated the power of our brilliant legal team and the sheer doggedness of the local and global campaigners and I was finally granted bail on 15th November. Even that didn’t lead to my release, and after a lot of drama in and out of court, and tension constantly rising outside the jail gate, the political dam burst, leading to my release on the night of the 20th. As we sang our way out of prison, Rahnuma whispered in my ear “you have an intro to write.” No rest for the wicked. Continue reading “Crossing the Threshold”